Kushwant Singh is one of India’s most astute observers of the religious pressures, superstitions and confusions that reign there – not least as regards the sexual satisfactions so widely testified as taken by the’ former Descended Godhead’ Sathya Sai Baba (now divinely deceased). Here is what he wrote recently about prayer and meditation… to which I also write some partly supportive, partly critical remarks:-
Kushwant Singh is, in my opinion, quite right about prayer. Most children discover the futility of prayer early on. Theologians and god-botherers in general try to teach how to pray and even what to pray for (i.e. to change your mend for you), claiming that all depends on the right quality of prayer, or the right amount, or directing it to the right kind of God, incarnation or whatever… Scientific study of the possible effects of prayer and whether they are always merely subjective (i.e. or whether prayers are ‘answered’ – and in positive ways) holds out no hope whatever that prayer achieves any desired objective results. Studies that claim prayer does work are always flawed or conducted by believers who bias – consciously or unconsciously – towards the desired answers (just as they no doubt also do in the interpretation of their own prayers and their value).
Meditation, I would submit, is in a somewhat different category (though the dividing line between prayer and meditation is fuzzy). There exist scientifically measurable effects of meditation in controlled conditions, and a (modest) few of them are quite startling (slowing metabolic functions, almost stopping breathing, heartbeat and other functions beyond what one might suppose possible – notable first case was Swami Rama in the 1960s). Modern neuroscience is now investigating – with MRI technology and more – the complex relationships between the two sides of the brain, which relation can – in some few instances of very long-term meditation - can apparently be much affected. It is known (see the scanned excerpt on the right from a major study by by a neuroscientist who also is an expert on different meditation techniques). that some meditation can bring about similar – but temporary – effects (though with far more time and effort) to the use of psychotropic ‘medicines’ and/or drugs (from cannabis, psilocybin, mescaline, LSD-25, DMT, Ecstasy, to ketamine, morphine, heroin etc.) as well as the most unusual ‘ecstatic’ experiences that have sometimes arisen from accidents, not least brain seizures (neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor’s own major stroke being one of the clearest cases of this activation see here).
Yet Kushwant Singh may yet have a point about ‘peace of mind’, for the glorification of it by ‘spiritual seekers’, for it can easily become a self-pacification to escape from facing the real world when it is problematic and needs to be dealt with for longer term well being. It is also usually promoted in connection with some doctrine about God, which can be shown to be an unnecessary complication to attaining peace of mind and the low stress levels this involves. Nonetheless, to calm the emotions in difficult situations is valuable… and meditation – which varies enormously and individually in methods and effects – can surely sometimes prove valuable. More importantly, meditation – which need not have any religious content whatever – is scientifically proven to have effect in reducing stress levels, which is very widespread in the world and are a major cause of a range of illnesses. Meditation even has been shown to have effects on recovery from a range of physical illnesses and some research also shows that it also effects considerable changes in the genetic code.
See Benson Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine (Professor at Harvard Medical School) who shows that repetition of words is an effective method of mind-calming, used in almost all cultures (mostly with a religious connection, which – however – is experimentally shown to be an entirely unnecessary adjunct). See also Jon Kabat-Zinn, Massachusetts Medical University, who researched thousands who were suffering a range of illnesses, finding significant improvements of in of (non-religious) meditators over the control group which did not meditate. Thirdly, Professor B. Zachariae of Århus University researched a form of meditation known as ‘visualization’ which improved physical conditions remarkably in those who concentrated on positive body and organ visualizations. Stronger immune systems were observed in those who visualized while being subjected to ultra-violet lighting, compared to those who were only subjected to the ultra-violet light. Diverse other researches support the general tendency of the findings referred to here.